For most of his 72 years, Clark Coe’s life typified that of the hardscrabble Connecticut Yankee farmer. He eked out a living for his family on a 100 acre plot in Killingworth that was as much stone as it was soil, supplementing farm income through woodworking – making baskets and producing axe handles for a New Haven manufacturer. In 1900, however, Coe took on a new role. He transformed himself into a folk artist, creating scrappy assemblages of wood, cloth, metal and paint into animated figures that became known as the “Killingworth Images.” These became a tourist attraction in his own lifetime, and prized posessions of major museums, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, after his death – which occurred today in 1919.
What Coe began as a whimsical project to amuse his grandchildren quickly took on a life of its own. Using scraps of baskets, barrels, and tree branches, supplemented with paint, nails, old clothes, and makeshift hair, Clark began creating life-size figures of characters in well-known roles and whimsical situations: a preacher waving his arms; a man riding a hog, a bandmaster waving a baton, another playing a lute; and a series of mini-figures riding a Ferris wheel. All Coe’s characters – whose names (such as the Rev. Will E. Scram, “Clown Head,” “Moses in Canoe,” “Man on a Hog” ) reflected the humorous intent of their creation – were animated by a millwheel powered with water Coe had diverted from a nearby stream to a purpose-built dam and sluiceway.
In Coe’s waterpowered fantasy- world, folk-art wrestlers wrestled without wearying (except during droughts and freezes), sawyers sawed tirelessly, a mother rocked her baby’s cradle endlessly, the preacher preached without pause, and a naughty child was perpetually spanked, all while twenty-two smaller but no less whimsical figures enjoyed an unending ride on a Ferris wheel.
Coe’s creations caused an immediate sensation, and brought a steady stream of visitors on horseback and in carriages to see the “Killingworth Images.” First a local, then statewide attraction, the images soon received notice nationwide. To inform would-be visitors they had reached the right location, Coe built a wooden manbell figure near the roadside entrance that continuously tapped a cowbell with one hand. He added a visitor book, which drew thousands of signatures, and set up a securely padlocked box with a slot for collecting small change, to accept voluntary contributions. A Salt Lake City, Utah newspaper reported in 1916 that it had “gathered in a snug sum for the creator of the odd attraction.” When asked how he drew visitors to the site, Coe told the reporter the show advertised itself, and as the power to run the figures cost nothing, the donations he received were all “velvet.”
Sadly, despite the intrinsic humor of “the Images,” Coe’s life was marked by tragedy. His wife, Harriet, who had helped clothe the figures, died in 1915. His only son, Charles, died the following year, and in 1917, his married daughter Minnie Morse died suddenly, leaving five young children behind. Morse’s husband, an alcoholic, was not able to care for the children and they were sent to live with relatives. Minnie’s oldest boys, Leslie and Frank, seen in the photograph above, came to live with Coe in Killingworth. Coe himself died only two years later, on October 26, 1919.
After Coe’s death, the new owner of the property, David Parmalee, continued to use “the Images” as an attraction. Some sources say it closed down the following year, others that it continued in operation till 1926, and others that it remained a thriving enterprise into the mid 1930s. All agree, however, that once the site fell into disuse, souvenir hunters took some of the images, others fell into disrepair, and the handful (five or six) that remained intact were exhibited at a folk art center on Long Island in the 1960s.
By then, Coe’s work was recognized as an extraordinary exemplar of American folk art. The Museum of American Folk Art in New York City says of Coe’s “Man with a lute,”for example, that “It displays an exquisite economy of carving; the large head and small generalized features are reminiscent of a simple frontal carving style found in many ancient cultures.”
The original site of “the Killingworth images” can be seen on Green Hill Road across from the Cow Hill intersection in Killingworth; surviving examples of the images themselves can be seen at the Killingworth Historical Society, the Killingworth Library, the Museum of American Folk Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and in a few private collections.
“Clark Coe, Creator of the Killingworth Images” ” Killingworth Library
“Killingworth Image, Man on a Hog,” Smithsonian Museum of American Art
“Clark Coe, Digital Library of Local Artists, ” Killingworth Library
“Killingworth’s Automated Attraction – Who Knew?” Connecticuthistory.org